Peru: The Thousand Crises and Pedro Castillo’s “Resistance”

By Jacqueline Fowks on November 18, 2022.

Pedro Castillo

The non-stop confrontation between the Peruvian Executive and Legislative Branches, which began in 2016 and has been accentuated since the rural teacher Pedro Castillo assumed the presidency, is growing more and more heated. The powers of the State are busy in their own dispute and, as a consequence, neglect the pressing situations experienced by a good part of the population. Unrest over the Peruvian socioeconomic situation is perceived and is growing in most regions of the country. During the last few weeks, the victims of a serious oil spill have held new demonstrations in front of the offices of Repsol, the President of the Council of Ministers and the seat of the Legislative Power. At the same time, women from the so-called “common pots” marched to the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion to demand a budget for 2023. Added to this situation is the conservative counter-reform in education and social rights imposed by the parliamentary opposition to Castillo. This opposition is advised by the most experienced ex-congressmen of Fujimorism.

The truth is that Peru was knocked out by the pandemic and has still not managed to get back on its feet. It is, in fact, the country with the highest number of deaths per million inhabitants in the world due to HIV/AIDS. But the crisis does not end there: in 2020 poverty reached 30% of the population -although it dropped to 25% last year- and in 2021 informal employment rose to 78%.

Although at the beginning of Castillo’s government, the then Minister of Health Hernando Zevallos proposed the integration of state services -fragmented and precarious, something that the private health sector takes advantage of to have more clients-, the official only lasted six months in office. The following appointees at the head of this key ministry in these times have been the product of the quotas of Peru Libre, the party for which Castillo was a candidate and which he ended up resigning from. The next two health ministers used the State to do business, not to solve the problems of health care in the facilities. Castillo, who came to the presidency offering a Constituent Assembly to declare health and education as fundamental rights, did not make any progress in this matter due to the locks placed by Congress and the rejection of the economic and media elite to a new Constitution: they consider it a step backward and a way towards “communism”.

It is evident that, in his 15 months of government, Castillo has been besieged by political opposition, in a process well known in Peru. In the face of persistent attacks, those who lead the country are unable to manage the state apparatus due to the pressures imposed by their opponents in Congress.

Since 2021, Castillo has also faced serious allegations of corruption that have resulted in six public prosecutor investigations for awarding public works contracts that favored family and friends in order to collect bribes, for influence peddling in military promotions, and for concealment and obstruction of justice. The Peruvian president has three lawyers, but some ministers act as a lightning rod every time a new indication of illegality appears in the Lima press. Former Transport Minister Juan Silva and a nephew of Castillo involved in the rigged bidding scheme have been on the run since May, and a sister-in-law of the president was in prison for almost two months while the preliminary investigation was underway to prevent evidence from disappearing – as had already happened with others under investigation.

In this political tangle, the State seems inoperative for the tens of thousands of people affected by the aforementioned oil spills -on the coast of Lima and in indigenous communities of the Amazon- caused by the Repsol company and the state-owned PetroPerú, respectively. The victims in January are mainly small-scale fishermen and micro-traders in seaside resorts and restaurants, most of them informal. Workers linked to these sectors have not been able to return to their jobs.

In the jungle, the most serious spills began in 2014 in a 50-year-old infrastructure: the Norperuvian oil pipeline. Between September and October there were four new spills in indigenous communities in the Loreto and Amazonas regions: the crude oil contaminates the water of rivers and lagoons that they use to prepare food or wash themselves, while preventing the fishing that is their source of protein and work. “It is a permanent practice of governments not to comply: the State should be the guarantor of people’s rights. It does not seem to us to be a priority to unite to remove a ruler, but that the State should put in place an intercultural health system for the peoples affected by the spills. We are not beggars, we live with heavy metals in our organs because the water is contaminated”, commented last week to the foreign press the indigenous chief Alfonso López Tejada, president of the Cocama Association for the development and conservation of San Pablo de Tipishca.

The health of the Kukama-Kukamiria ethnic group is in danger since the spills of more than 2,000 barrels of oil in the communities of San Pedro and Cuninico. Small farmers are also affected by the governability. Fertilizer shortages due to the war in Ukraine were warned by producers and specialists in 2021. The government offered to import the product to deliver it at a fair price to farmers. However, three international purchase processes were canceled due to administrative problems and now there is a fourth call.

Castillo’s government has had seven interior ministers in 15 months, as well as dozens of changes in key areas. Some of these changes in the cabinet were due to pressure from the opposition, but also because by his eagerness not to be dismissed -through the figure of vacancy due to permanent moral incapacity-, Castillo placed people who would assure him votes in Congress. The opposition needs 87 votes to remove him from office and the first two attempts were unsuccessful.

This political instability affects the activity of the State. A State that should solve urgent problems, such as the increase in the number of deaths at the hands of hired killers, the extortions by gangs such as the so-called Tren de Aragua and the increase in disappearances of women. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, between January and August of this year there were 7,762 reports of missing women, of which less than 50% were found. The newspaper La Repúblicareported that from January to September there were 199 murders at the hands of hired killers in Lima, while in 2021 the total figure was 219.

The Parliament has managed to obstruct the Executive and, at the same time, to carry out a counter-reform on social issues. The parliamentary opposition has retired military officers in its ranks, such as the current president of Congress, José Daniel Williams Zapata, an Army general who commanded anti-subversive patrols during the years of violence (1980-2000), and Martha Moyano, a former collaborator of opposition leader Keiko Fujimori. Both are among the oldest promoters of the idea that in Peru there was only terrorism at the hands of the Maoist group Shining Path and that the forces of law and order were peacemakers and saviors of democracy. While 54% of the fatalities during the internal conflict were the responsibility of the terrorist actions of this armed group, 37% of the dead and disappeared were the responsibility of security agents, according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the end of October, Congress approved a regulation for the Ministry of Education to implement a new “history of terrorism” course on “the atrocities of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) due to the alarming lack of knowledge of young people about their actions”, commented the fujimorista parliamentarian who proposed the bill.

The law was approved against the contrary opinion of the National Education Council, which stated that 75% of the victims belonged to the poorest population and that this showed a disregard for their lives on the part of the guerrillas and State agents. The parliamentary opposition has united with congressmen of Peru Libre for other counter-reforms: norms were voted that denaturalize integral sexual education in schools and enable ultraconservative parents’ associations to change the contents of school books on sexual education or on the period of violence. The other setback promoted by this political sector is to replace the name of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations with the Ministry of the Family. In the style of Vox and bolsonarismo, the allusion to the family and the defenders of the homeland weakens human rights and gender equality in the country.

This week, Congress will evaluate a charge of treason against Castillo and his disqualification for five years, due to the answer he gave in January to CNN when asked if he would cede the sea to Bolivia. The president answered that he would consult the people on the matter (in a referendum) and as a consequence a group of conservative lawyers -who in 2021 promoted the idea that there was electoral fraud- filed the complaint. The approach is so weak that even several parliamentarians and political analysts who prefer that the president resign disqualify the complaint for its illegitimacy. Congress requires a simple majority (65 votes) to approve it, but it will also have to evaluate the political costs involved in forcing the figure of treason.

Why in these 16 months of government has Congress not achieved the 87 votes to remove the former teacher unionist from office? One reason is that, although weak, the alliance of the Executive Power with Peru Libre, founded by the self-styled “Marxist-Leninist” Vladimir Cerron, has been maintained. The current Minister of Health, Kelly Portalatino, is a congresswoman of that political group and her ministry -as well as that of Housing and Transportation- has seemed in these months to be an employment agency for the close associates of that party.

Peru Libre had 37 seats in July 2021, but now has 15 due to the split of two benches: the Bloque Magisterial -of ten former teachers, colleagues of Castillo in the teachers’ strike of 2017- and Peru Democrático, of six members who also vote in favor of the president. The president also has some votes from Somos Perú, the party to which the Minister of Labor, one of his most loyal political spokespersons, belongs.

The president, in addition, usually invites parliamentarians without a party to travel to inaugurate small infrastructure works in order to make them visible to his constituents and, by the way, to secure votes. In order to armor himself before Congress, Castillo even appointed as ministers’ representatives of the extreme right, but this did not serve to calm the Legislative’s eagerness to remove him from office and only aggravated his inefficient governmental management.

Jacqueline Fowks is a journalist. She has a degree in Communication Sciences from the University of Lima and a master’s degree in Communication from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is currently a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – Buenos Aires